Not too long ago, T.I.'s Grand Hustle imprint wasn't living up to its name. The Atlanta rapper spent the better part of 2009 through 2011 behind bars, first for weapon charges and then again for a probation violation stemming from drug possession. During that time, Grand Hustle, his label and budding business empire, began to wither. With the notable exception of B.o.B., the careers of other signees -- including Yung L.A., who had a platinum-selling hit "Aint' I" in 2008, and Young Dro, whose 2006 debut, Best Thang Smokin', hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 -- stalled out. A promising young Philadelphia rapper named Meek Mill, who signed with T.I. in 2008, never released a record via Grand Hustle, instead finding chart-topping success with Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group a few years later.
Now T.I. is ready to right the ship. Since finishing out his final sentence in late 2011, he's announced the first new signings to Grand Hustle in years, including British rapper Chip, Houston vet Trae Tha Truth, Travi$ Scott and Iggy Azalea (who moved on to Island Def Jam this year). He also released his first post-prison album, Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200. It may prove to be his last record under Atlantic Records -- his 10-year contract with the label reportedly expired earlier this year. In the meantime, he's said to be shopping a $75 million deal for himself and his imprint.
But he isn't letting label limbo hold back Grand Hustle. On Tuesday (May 7), he released "G.D.O.D.," the debut mixtape from Hustle Gang, a new moniker for the label, featuring contributions from most of the acts on the its deep roster. The project was preceded by a single from T.I. and B.o.B., "Memories Back Then," featuring Kendrick Lamar and Hustle Gang singer Kris Stephens, which cracked the Hot 100 at No. 88 last week, despite the absence of a major-label push.
No wonder T.I. is feeling emboldened. In a sit-down with Billboard hours before the mixtape's release, he insisted he wasn't considering deals worth less than eight-figures, and also revealed plans for new videos with Lil Wayne, Mystikal and more.
Why did you decide to release "G.D.O.D."?
I'm just showcasing the wide array of talent and the broad range that we have and making sure the people know exactly what we intend to do. We came here to conquer, outshine, out-hustle, out-swag anybody in our face -- period. And we are more than equipped enough to do it. We just want to make sure everybody know that the Gang is here and everybody's about that money. We didn't come here for no foolishness. We kicking ass and taking names. Bet on that.
Is Hustle Gang an act, a crew or a label? Is it the same thing as Grand Hustle?
All the above. Everything you just said is applicable. Hustle Gang, for one, we're a family. We work together 'cause this is the family business. But it's about creating opportunities, creating opportunities for people around us, those who've been sitting still and waiting on this time to shine. We have been forced to endure a very dark period, you know? That dark period is over, and the celebration shall begin. But before the celebration we got to put in the work. And this work is a part of it. Everybody just really swagged on "G.D.O.D." Everybody's on at least on two or three songs. There are some that appear more than others due to schedules and itineraries, but everybody's dedicated to the cause.
Grand Hustle definitely suffered while you were incarcerated.
I think this project is the beginning of something beautiful. We would've been doing this shit five years ago if it weren't for the fed case we was fighting. People actually counted us out simply because of our circumstances. We were forced to endure these circumstances, but that doesn't mean they will define us. I guess people think because they're too weak to endure and overcome and return to their proper place in history, they feel like when we get hit with something we going to be too weak to return, but nothing could be further from the truth. I can't wait to show folks what we can do.
How will this new iteration of Grand Hustle be different than the first one, before your first prison sentence?
For one, now we know what to do. Before we were really learning by trial and error. Now we know what to do because of the mistakes that we made earlier. A lot of things weren't taken advantage of before because we took things for granted. We were shocked and surprised that we were even there. We were shocked and surprised, for real, that we were actually in that position. And that shock and that surprise, it put us in a position where we weren't able to see opportunity day to day. Because we weren't looking for it. We was having such a good time we weren't really trying to maximize, we were just trying to enjoy ourselves. We made a lot of money and we made a lot of mistakes with it.
Now we have an idea of how to keep from making those mistakes today and how to apply that to the future. Before we would have hit records and not even put out albums. We had [Yung L.A.'s] "Ain't I" record in 2008; that was a hit record, a No. 1 record, and we didn't even put out an album. We were really just flying by the seat of our pants, there was no real strategy. We were waking up, doing this shit and then dealing with it later. We're a lot more strategic. We're older. We understand there's protocols and procedures, orders of operation. Now we ready to mash the game in a different way. Before we would just wake up, count the money we have, hop in a fast car, do the maximum speed to wherever we going, go to the club, kick ass in the club, go to the studio after the club, stay up till the sun come up, fall asleep somewhere, wake up and do it all over again.
Why did you choose "Memories Back Then" as the first single from "G.D.O.D."? With the deep message, it's not what you'd expect as the intro to a crew mixtape.
I felt that it was urgent. It said everything we wanted to say and it conveyed all the right messages. It has a commercial appeal, but it's still authentic in terms of what we're talking about, and what Hustle Gang consists of musically and artistically. It was the best of both worlds, if you will. It was the perfect dichotomy. And I think the people are proving me right.
Will there be more videos and singles from the mixtape?
Absolutely. We're about to do the video for "Here I Go," featuring Mystikal. It's going to be hard to shoot that video because [Grand Hustle signee] Spodie, he's locked. Free Spodie, by the way. We trying to get him out of there so he can come out and really reap the benefits of the fruits of his labor, 'cause he worked as hard as any of us did on this project and he's locked up.
What about a Hustle Gang tour?
Well, right now I'm on the America's Most Wanted Tour -- me, Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz. B.o.B is on the Under the Influence tour. We play roles in other tours, and when we finish those tours, this project will put us in position to do our own tour. We will be swagging on folks in an arena near you. We're at least 30 deep, so if you get all of us under one roof, it's going down.
Your 10-year deal with Atlantic expired, and recent reports said you were looking for a massive new deal. What's your label situation now?
Let it be known: I am a free agent. I'm operating as an independent label. I do not have corporate sponsors. I don't have no corporate backing. I don't have no major distribution. We Master-P-ing this shit right now. Everything we putting out we paying for it. It's the grind. It's put me back to where I was when my first record [2001's I'm Serious] didn't sell, when I got dropped [from Arista] and I had to prove that I was worthy of a record deal. That's what I'm doing right now. Back then I was proving I was worth $2 million. Right now, I'm proving I'm worth $200 million.
I done sat with all the people; everybody says they're interested, but they don't want to cut that check. Alright -- we're going to motivate them to cut that check. We're gong to incentivize each and every institution, each and every place of distribution, we going to motivate them. They going to cut that check, man, and it's going to be eight figures. I ain't doing no deal if it ain't eight figures. I don't even wanna sit down with you. I don't wanna waste your time nor mine. I can do this shit on my own. $5 million, $2 million, $4 million, $3 million -- I can do that shit on my own. I got that in the pipeline already. Don't even talk to me if it ain't eight figures. If y'all don't feel like I'm worth it, I'ma show you.
What's next for you, Hustle Gang and Grand Hustle after this mixtape?
Hustle Gang apparel is in stores; we found a new way to swag on folk. Each artist will drop individual mixtapes. Sha tha God got his ready to go, Young Dro got his ready to go, Chip already got one out. We're going to be working Trae tha Truth's single with Future, "Screwed Up." The video's already out and moving around. I'm working on my next project -- the sequel to Trouble Man, He Who Wears the Crown, that'll be out in December. We have a video with [Lil] Wayne, shot it in Miami, it's called "Wit Me." It's going to be a prelude to the America's Most Wanted tour, giving folks a taste of what they're going to be able see every night countrywide. We're going to shut shit down every time. They cracked the door, and I'm kicking it in.